Susan Johnson
Allen & Unwin Rrp $34.99

A summer visit to Greece can often wave a magic wand over its visitors: “the sky an endless blue, the sea as clear as vodka,” says author Susan Johnson who fell in love with the island of Kythera but has written a very different memoir.

She could have lost her heart to any one of the many enchanting islands that are sprinkled across the Aegean Sea as they are all rather special. Kythera is where her Greek friends in Brisbane said she should go to and where many of their parents and relatives had migrated from during the 1950 and 1960’s. 

Yearning for the freedom and beauty of the Kythera of her youth and unwilling to leave her recently widowed 84-year-old mother alone, Susan invited her along to what she promised would be a Greek island adventure. 

When her mother too promptly answered yes, Susan should have had second thoughts that perhaps they were both being brave and foolish in equal parts.

She found no insurance company world-wide would insure her mother for a year, except one based in Colorado USA specialising in expensive medical insurance for expatriates. That might have been a red flag that their Greek odyssey might not turn out as smoothly as she dreamed.

Kythera is part of the Ionian group of islands not far from Crete on one side and Corfu on the other; it is a barren place of 4,000 people who live in small communities dotted across the island.

In spring and summer, it is a fantasy of wildflowers which sprout from rocks and crevices everywhere you look, but in the wintery months it is beset by wild bone-chilling winds which sweep through the walls of the old stone cottages without any of the luxuries such as hot running water, heating and other basic modern comforts. 

Like most of the islands the people stick to their uncomplicated customs and simple rhythms of life, bunking down during the winter and then dancing, drinking, eating, swimming, enjoying themselves and welcoming tourists in summer, as if today is too precious to think beyond.

Susan, without checking what month would be a good time to arrive, rented what seemed like an enchanting old cottage on top of a hill with a dazzling view, in the cold month of March and set off with mountains of luggage only to encounter blizzard strength winds and old heaters that were never going to combat the whistling winds that surged through the cracks of the stone walls.

Her mother, wrapped from head to toe in warm clothes complained endlessly, finally insisting that her daughter had to break their bond and find them another place to live. 

Friends on the island searched high and low as the approaching tourist season had booked up every available bit of accommodation. Finally, their friend Maria secured an empty Doctor’s house, a traditional Greek cottage with a big old-fashioned kitchen and a huge fireplace. 

It was decorated in an eclectic mix of knick-knacks including religious icons on every wall which shared space with paintings of bare breasted African women and nineteenth-century sailing ships. Evidently the doctor had travelled the world and treated the locals for free, so his grateful patients paid him in kind. 

It was still a cold house, but spring was only weeks away and her mother settled into her new home except for asking Maria  to find her a washing machine.  Susan had already bought them a smart TV and a car, as the roads were almost impossible for her mother to walk safely.

Like all the islands, Kythera adheres to superstitions that are part of the fabric of everyday life; the folklore everyone lives by. Susan and her mother learned not to raise eyebrows when a neighbour suggested they burn sage leaves to quieten the ghosts of the dead who would have died in their house or gave the reason a friend missed the boat from Athens as being a ghost causing them to have an accident in their apartment.

Susan mingles her many experiences during her almost two years on Kythera with many historical stories and local beliefs.  She intertwines them with Greek myths and the long history of the island which many believe was the birthplace of the goddess of love, Aphrodite.   

The book is a fascinating read because Susan is prepared to share all sorts of honest thoughts and feelings about her behaviour toward her mother who is not easily pleased. Susan, herself, by way of contrast, is constantly over the moon and enraptured with everything Greek. 

She does acknowledge that she came to recognise her old life, her busy city life, the constant rush and speed, had been a protective cover, a mask for what lay beneath. “It was as if Kythera had ripped away that mask, leaving my frail self, exposed. That ship of life I had believed I so purposefully steering was revealed to be a flimsy vessel tossed by the weather.”

Musings like these are sprinkled throughout the memoir as Susan waxes lyrically about day-to-day life on the island and the insights she gleans from their adult mother-daughter relationship. 

She deeply regrets one terrible outburst when she shouted a lot of pent-up accusations at her mother, hurting her deeply. She and her mother agreed her mother should leave the island and go back to Brisbane at the end of the autumn. This she did and two years later her mother died there.

Susan didn’t know what her mother really thought of her year in Kythera until she found her diary. In it her mother wrote.  “I was unlucky to be there at the end of the worst winter in many years, so I will forget those months and remember the best parts. Kythera will stay in my heart as a year well spent, lapping up every experience, the glorious springtime and likeable people, especially our lovely hosts. Australia is my home. Kythera is theirs. I am happy they included me for a short time.”

I too spent a year on the island of Paros in the Cyclades group with my husband and two children. I can vouch for the harshness of the winter months and the halcyon days of summer peopled with interesting locals and tourists from all over Europe. This book bought back vivid memories and a longing to return to that simple uncomplicated lifestyle and the heartbreakingly, beautiful landscape. 

But, as Susan found out, nothing lasts, and I too must move on!

Sherry Stumm


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